Dear Megan, I have just recently started a new job that I adore and was a big step up, after having spent the better part of a year doing a lot of work to find a really great next step. I love my apartment and my friends and my life, but, as soon as I got my new job, it was like, “ok…now I need a man, then a baby, and then my life will be perfect.” It feels like something is wrong with this way of thinking. Is there? -S, 33
“Perfect” is the operative word here. Perfectionism is the most widely accepted and common form of self-sabotage and self-defeat. And, it’s so common for good reason! It worked so well for so many of us for so long! It got you through long hours of studying, and work, to get you the degrees, and the jobs, and the accolades, and it kept opening doors. Why would anyone question a behavior that was working so well?
Because, eventually, it stops working. It works as long as there is the promise (and the myth) of happiness on the other side. We incorrectly think that “perfect” is a feeling. We think “perfect” feels like happiness, and we keep chasing this feeling, to no avail. That’s what you’re experiencing now, S, is the whack-a-mole chase of perfectionism (aka happiness, serenity, relief). You get the job you wanted, and you realize you don’t feel happiness or serenity or a feeling of “perfection” (whatever that is), so you go onto the next thing–a man! Then, you will find your soul mate, and the next item that you need to be “perfect” will pop up, say, the brownstone in Brooklyn, or the baby, or the next job…it’s a nasty negative feedback loop that, even just writing about it, is exhausting. And, then you discover that there is no there, there.
I can tell you, though, that you are not alone and that the most common thing people say when they come to me is, “My life is perfect. I achieved everything I set out to do. And I am miserable. Do I really have to do this for the next 30 years?! What is wrong with me?” This was certainly my story.
Armed with the myth of perfectionism, she has constructed a great life, it is just not her life. The problem with perfectionism is that gives ALL of your power away. It removes you from the equation completely. It abdicates all sense of responsibility and agency for yourself and your own life. No wonder it leaves us feeling so empty!
This feels easier at first, because we’re confused and we’re scared, and it’s way easier to imitate what has already been done. It’s sort of like sitting down to a blank page to start a 50-page research paper when you have no idea what the thesis is yet, and you feel so overwhelmed, and scared that you aren’t going to fill the pages with anything, and you won’t have anything to say, so it feels so much easier just to adopt someone else’s paper that you like from that good ol’ world wide web. In other words, to plagiarize. Ask yourself seriously, do you really want to plagiarize your life? Because that is exactly what you are doing when your chief goal is “THE perfect life”.
So, why is perfectionism so hard to give up? (Trust me, I still struggle against this tendency every single day.) For most of us achiever types, we think that the absence of perfectionism is complacency. We think that to give up perfectionism is to give up all drive, ambition, desire for impact, striving, achievement, success. We don’t know who we would be without it. Perfectionism is all wrapped up in most of our secret fear that if we weren’t perfectionists we’d all be lazy do-nothings who hate to work and binge on Netflix and Seamless (SeamFlix, for short, in case you needed short-hand) all day long.
In other words, we confuse perfectionism for excellence. It’s true that achieving all the stops of a “perfect” life does require a commitment to excellence. You did put in the hours and the effort to, like the architect with a blueprint someone else handed her, to execute against that vision. But, it is excellence mixed with conformity, instead of creativity.
Excellence + conformity ≠ all the good feelings (fulfillment, joy, happiness, serenity)
One caveat on conformity: by this I do not mean that we all must go and create a career that has never before existed by anyone ever. There is no list of “conformist” careers, versus “creative” ones. For me, Google was completely conformist–something I “should” do, or that was “good” and “smart” to do, but I have plenty of friends there who have truly followed their hearts to the Googleplex. I know plenty of lawyers who are blissfully stimulated, and ones that feel hopelessly stuck. I know writers and painters and entrepreneurs who feel trapped, and ones who have never felt more alive.